Friday, June 5, 2015

Spy - 2 1/2 stars

Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who sits behind a desk and radios instructions to a spy out in the field.  She’s basically doing the same job Simon Pegg did in Mission Impossible 3.  Or Tom Arnold in True Lies. 

The spy she works with is Bradley Fine (Jude Law).  Things go wrong, agents are killed, identities are compromised, and she’s the only one their enemy won’t recognize.  So she’s sent to Rome to stop Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) from selling a stolen nuke.

I was getting tired of Melissa McCarthy playing the same type of character.  Between Heat, Identity Thief, and Tammy, she played loud, obnoxious characters who were basically buffoons.  So it was really refreshing this time to see her play a likable, competent character.  Susan is a fully trained CIA agent, and even though she’s stuck behind a desk and doesn’t have any field experience, she’s smart and knows how to take care of herself.  And the humor doesn’t come at her expense.  The movie doesn’t make any fat jokes, and she doesn’t save the day through sheer luck.  She’s no Paul Blart.

I just wish the movie was funnier.  I really didn’t laugh very much, and it was especially painful watching Jason Statham try to be funny.  The movie tries too hard to be a serious spy story, and the story itself just wasn’t compelling enough.  Maybe if they cut 20 minutes or so it would have worked better.  But as it is, I couldn’t sit through this movie again. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland - 2 1/2 stars

Tomorrowland is kind of a mess.  As far as I understood it, Tomorrowland is a place that exists in another dimension.  It was either discovered or created by people like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.  It was established as a place where the brightest, most creative thinkers and inventors could let their imaginations run wild without the problems of bureaucracy or politics.  For some time, it thrived with amazing things like jetpacks, rocket ships, and swimming pools suspended in mid-air (those were really cool).  Then something happened and now it’s deserted and run down.  At the same time, the end of the world is coming unless one person can do something to stop it.  The movie never explains what that one thing is, but then I don’t think that’s the point of the movie.

The movie opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) narrating his part of the story.  When he was a boy, he went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair where he enters a competition for inventors.  The jet pack he created doesn’t really work, but he meets a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy).  Athena gives young Frank a special pin and leads him to Tomorrowland, a place where anything is possible. 

The look of Tomorrowland is incredible.  It’s hard to be impressed by digital effects anymore but the imagination on display just blew me away.  If the movie had stuck with young Frank for a while, it would have been much better.  Instead we immediately shift to Casey (Britt Robertson) who starts narrating her part of the story.  We jump to the present day and watch as Casey tries to sabotage the cranes that are demolishing the Cape Canaveral launching pad.  She gets arrested and when she gets out, she finds a Tomorrowland pin.  When she touches it, she’s able to see Tomorrowland and this is where the movie takes off.

For a while, the movie gets pretty interesting.  Casey starts investigating, meets Athena (who hasn’t aged a day) and the old Frank, who doesn’t want to get involved in whatever’s going on.  There are mysterious robots out to kill them and gun fights ensue.  Bit by bit, Frank tells Casey about Tomorrowland and what it all means.

Basically the first half of the movie is really fun and interesting.  Then we get to the halfway point and it all goes downhill.  The more things are explained, the less interesting it seems.  And the movie starts to get overly preachy with its message about not giving up hope and nurturing imagination and creativity.  Those are good messages, but it’s just too on the nose and overly melodramatic.

There are also too many details left out.  I really wanted to learn more about what happened between young Frank and Athena, or why Frank was kicked out of Tomorrowland, or what day to day life is like there.  Are people living there and raising families, or are they just working?  As cool as Tomorrowland is, too much of the movie is set on Earth.  It’s like the movie kept building and building the anticipation, then instead of delivering it just started to drag. 

At the same time, it’s hard to hate this movie.  Its heart is in the right place and there is a really good story in there somewhere.  I feel like one or two rewrites and some tighter editing could have made this something special.  Director Brad Bird just wanted to do too much with this story and he made the movie overstuffed and uneven.  So I guess it’s not a bad movie, just a disappointing one.

Poltergeist (2015) - 2 stars

The original 1982 movie was the first movie that really scared me.  I think I was 7 or 8 when I first saw it, and I remember being so freaked out that I couldn’t sleep that night.  One of the things about that movie was that it felt so real to me.  Like other Spielberg movies from the 80s, the characters were so well developed and the suburban setting so realized that it felt like everything happening in the movie could really happen anywhere.  Of course the fact that I was so young could have had something to do with that too …

Anyway, they remade Poltergeist.  After movies like The Conjuring and Insidious, this one feels like a knock-off.  The original does a great job of first establishing the characters and slowly ratcheting up the tension.  This one wastes no time and jumps right into the scary stuff, which doesn’t work as well.

The best thing about this movie is Sam Rockwell.  He’s always interesting to watch, and he has a few really funny scenes.  But once Carol Anne Madison is kidnapped by the ghosts in the TV, Rockwell has nothing interesting to do.  It’s surprising how quickly the parents accept the haunting as normal.  Aside from being confused about what’s going on and what to do, it doesn’t really seem like they’re ever freaked out or amazed that they live in a haunted house, or that spirits have kidnapped their daughter. 

Just like in the first movie, the family first enlists the aid of paranormal researchers from the local college.  And once again, they need help from a spiritual medium to help get Maddie back.  But instead of Zelda Rubenstein, we get Jared Harris playing Carrigan Burke, a celebrity medium who hosts a reality show where he ‘cleans’ haunted houses.  And it’s quite a coincidence that the researcher from the local college just happens to know Carrigan Burke, and is able to get him there on the same day.  It’s even harder to believe that he’s so willing to help them when they tell him that they don’t want this filmed for his show.  He’s got a successful cable reality series – you would think he has a pretty full schedule.

Anyway, there are a few good scares in this movie, but then that’s easy to do.  Just show a character standing there in an empty room, move the camera away for a second, move it back to show a ghost standing there and have a loud boom on the soundtrack, and the audience jumps.  It’s much harder for a movie to create a real sense of dread, and this movie never really does that. 

It also feels too short.  It’s at least twenty minutes shorter than the original, and it feels rushed.  When they get Maddie back from the other side, I looked at my watch because I couldn’t believe how quickly that was resolved.  Once again, another unnecessary remake that will be forgotten in a week.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - 3 1/2 stars

I don’t think I’ve seen the first three Mad Max movies all the way through.  I know I rented the first movie once.  I vaguely remember bits and pieces of it – I know there’s a scene where Mel Gibson handcuffs a guy to a motorcycle that’s about to explode and leaves him with a hack saw.  I don’t remember hardly anything from The Road Warrior, but Beyond Thunderdome was on HBO all the time when I was a kid. 

Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max movie, and it’s just incredible.  The movie drops you right in the middle of this post-apocalyptic world without giving us hardly any backstory.  All we know is that there is no more system of government, and gas and oil are hard to come by.  Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is captured by the War Boys, an army ruled by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe, who has a really cool breathing mask that looks like the grin of a skull. 

For the first half hour or so, Max is a prisoner.  He wears this iron mask over his face and he’s being used to supply blood to Nux (Nicholas Hoult).  When the War Boys head out to capture Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Max is tied to the front of Nux’s car like a hood ornament. 

The movie is basically one big chase, and it’s the most thrilling chase I think I’ve ever seen.  Furiosa and her War Rig are being chased by an army of War Boys led by King Joe.  Eventually Max will team up with Furiosa and help her try to get away.  The stunts in this movie were mostly practical rather than CGI, and it shows.  This movie was exhilarating and I saw things that I have never seen in a movie before.  The level of creativity and imagination used to bring the movie to life is just off the charts – the design of the vehicles, the look of the army, everything is just amazing to look at.  

Another thing I loved is the music.  It’s over the top at times but that just adds to the fun.  It’s got this old fashioned sweeping musical score with some heavy metal guitar added in there.  Make sure you see it movie on the biggest screen you can with the best sound possible.   

Pitch Perfect 2 - 1 1/2 stars

I’m not in the target demographic for either of the Pitch Perfect films, but I still enjoyed the first one.  It poked fun at the concept of college a cappella groups without making fun of them.  Beca (Anna Kendrick) was a good lead character, and it was a typical underdog movie.  We got to know Beca and the rest of The Barden Bellas and we rooted for them.  And there was a lot of funny stuff in that movie.

But the sequel isn’t half the movie the original was.  I didn’t laugh much and I didn’t care about what happened to the characters.  At the start of the movie, the Bellas are performing at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for President Obama.  Fat Amy has an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, and the Bellas are kicked out of the national a cappella league or something like that.  Even though they won the competition at the end of the previous movie, this infraction prevents them from going on the rest of their victory tour. 

But they still get to go to the international competition for some reason.  If they win that, they’ll be back in the good graces of the a cappella judges and their suspension will be over.  But of course no American team has ever won the international competition, so the odds are against them.  It doesn’t make sense that the color commentators (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks) are the ones who get to decide on their suspension, but whatever.

Beca has taken an internship at a recording studio but she’s keeping it a secret from the rest of the Bellas.  She’s still dating Skylar but he only pops up in a couple scenes.  Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is seeing Bumper but keeping it a secret from everyone.  And Benji has a crush on the new Bella, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), but the movie doesn’t do much with their relationship.

That’s probably the biggest problem with the movie.  There are some good ideas but they’re not fully developed.  Just when the Benji and Emily relationship is starting to get interesting, the movie doesn’t know where to go with it.  By the time they’re comfortable enough with each other to have a conversation at a party, it’s just shown in a montage. 

This movie just bored me.  Fat Amy didn’t make me laugh, and neither did the color commentators.  The music was ok but I don’t think the soundtrack will sell anywhere near as much as the first one did.  This is one of those sequels that we didn’t need.  The only reason it was made is because the first movie was an unexpected hit.  Hopefully this one doesn’t do as well and we won’t have to sit through a third one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Maggie - 3 stars

There was a time when zombie movies were straightforward horror movies about people killing zombies and trying not to be eaten.  Now zombies are so main stream that you can have a romantic comedy about them (Warm Bodies), a buddy comedy (Shaun of the Dead) or a number one rated network series (The Walking Dead). 

This movie is about Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin).  She’s just been bitten by a zombie.  When Wade picks Maggie up from the hospital, the doctor tells him that she will start to show signs of aggression.  She’ll lose her appetite … and then she’ll get it back …

Instead of being a horror movie, this movie is more of a drama.  There are a couple of scenes of zombie killing, but most of the time we are just observing how Wade and his family deal with this tragedy.  Watching it I really felt the horror that Maggie was experiencing.  She keeps picking at her bite like it’s a sore.  We watch as her eyes start to turn a milky white and her veins turn black. 

In the movie, the zombie outbreak has been going on a while.  Society hasn’t broken down like in The Walking Dead – there are still police officers and working hospitals – but there are stores and gas stations left empty.  It’s somewhere in between normal society and The Walking Dead.  When someone is infected and is close to turning, they are sent to a quarantine zone.  There’s a really great scene where Maggie goes camping with her friends and they try to pretend that life is normal.  They sit around a campfire talking about what it’s like in the quarantine, but they could be sitting around talking about normal high school stuff.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been known for his acting abilities, but he’s pretty good in this movie.  He gets a couple of zombie killing scenes, but for the most part he’s just a dad trying to keep his family together.  If you go in looking for an exciting zombie movie, or a typical Schwarzenegger action movie, you’ll be disappointed.  I enjoyed the movie for what it was.  It creates a great sense of dread and suspense as you wait for the moment when she’ll turn on her family.

Hot Pursuit - 2 stars

I think the filmmakers were inspired by The Heat.  Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) is a lot like Sandra Bullock’s character – she’s uptight, by the book, and nobody likes her.  But the heat was a funny movie with well-developed characters and an intelligent script.  Hot Pursuit has none of those things.

I chuckled now and then, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud.  There’s a running gag where every time they reference Cooper and Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), Cooper’s a little shorter and Riva’s a little older.  That was ok, but the physical comedy just didn’t work.  Things like Cooper and Riva trying to climb out of a bathroom window, or driving a bus and shooting out the window while handcuffed together, those scenes are just obvious and not funny.

The movie also has the requisite dumb disguises.  When Cooper is sneaking into a drug lord’s house, she’s dresses as Justin Bieber.  Then five minutes later, she changes and dresses like a waitress.  Why abandon the first disguise?  Because costume changes are funny, right? 

Even the outtakes during the closing credits aren’t funny.  Save your money and wait for Netflix.